Special Education

Oak Foundation Aims to Aid Those With ‘Learning Differences’

By Christina A. Samuels — October 27, 2015 6 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education estimates that a little over 3 percent of elementary, middle, and high school students have what’s known as a “specific learning disability” and are receiving special education services.

But that percentage doesn’t include millions of other children and adolescents who are struggling with a learning impairment that has not been formally diagnosed—as many as 1 in 5, many experts have suggested. Those students may need as much help as their peers in special education, but their needs aren’t recognized.

The Geneva-based Oak Foundation, which has a U.S. office in Chapel Hill, N.C., is intent on reaching that population. Over the past six years, it has invested more than $28 million through its program to support children, youths, and adults with what it calls “learning differences.”

It is among the largest donors in this field, and has chosen to fund a variety of groups, including school districts and universities in North Carolina and elsewhere; Teach For America and its global partner Teach for All; the National Center for Learning Disabilities; and CAST, a nonprofit that is the backbone of the universal-design-for-learning movement.

Providing Support

Since 2009, the Oak Foundation has made grants totaling more than $28 million to support students with learning differences. See examples below. (Some organizations have received grants over multiple years.)

RoadTrip Nation: $300,000
To pay for a group of students with learning and attention issues to travel around the country to interview leaders “who have defined their own roads in life, despite having had a learning or attention issue.”

Massachusetts Advocates for Children: $409,999
To support the organization’s Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative. Trauma-sensitive schools support all students, including those with learning differences.

New Classrooms: $1 million
To explore the use of a technology tool that would “foster [students’] awareness and ownership of their learning.”

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Public Schools: $250,000
To expand a mentor program aimed at students of color, while providing academic support for students with learning differences.

University of North Carolina: $3 million
To help recruit, retain, and support students with learning differences in college through CollegeSTAR, a support program.

Project Eye to Eye: $203,000
To grow the number of Eye to Eye chapters. Project Eye to Eye pairs middle and high school students with learning differences with trained college-student mentors.

SOURCE: Oak Foundation

The foundation is driving toward a broad understanding that far more children need extra support than are currently legally entitled to it through the Individuals with Disabilities Act. Those children are in general education classrooms, with teachers who may have little or no knowledge about different ways of learning.

The work of the foundation is personal, said Stacy Parker-Fisher, the director of the learning-differences program for the Oak Foundation. The family behind the foundation has personal experience with dyslexia and with seeing how children who struggle academically can be marginalized, she said.

“They had resources to support their family members through private placements. However, they recognize that most children don’t have access to those resources. That really guided the program to an equity focus,” she said.

The Oak Foundation was founded in 1983 by Alan Parker, a British accountant and one of the original partners of the Duty Free Shoppers group. (Parker-Fisher is not a member of the foundation’s founding family.) Parker’s children also sit on the board of the organization, and one of them lives in North Carolina.

In addition to its work with learning differences, the Oak Foundation has six other program aimed at fighting child abuse, protecting the environment, and supporting international human rights. In 2014, the foundation gave about $246 million, $7.6 million of which was related to learning differences.

First Foray

Its first foray into the field came years before the official formation of the program, when it gave money in 2002 to CAST and to All Kinds of Minds, a nonprofit that trains teachers to understand the science of learning. Before joining the foundation, Parker-Fisher, who started her career as a special education teacher in Illinois, was the vice president of All Kinds of Minds.

In 2009, the foundation officially launched its learning-differences program. One of its frequent recipients has been the 12,000-student Chapel Hill-Carrboro City, N.C., school district, which leads a consortium of nine other districts in the area to support response to intervention, a method of providing systematic academic assistance to struggling learners. The most recent two-year grant to the district was awarded in 2014, for about $150,000.

The support has allowed members of the North Carolina RTI Consortium to travel to different educational conferences, and has linked school district leaders with other experts in the field, said Alisha Schiltz, the RTI/504 coordinator for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City.

Without the foundation’s support, the 12,000-student district would still have been able to implement an RTI program, “but it would have taken more time,” Schiltz said. Also important is that the consortium provides a way for school districts to communicate with each other about best practices, and to advocate with state education officials.

In the field of research, the foundation has been a longtime supporter of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, which recently released a study on young-adult outcomes for students who were diagnosed with a learning or attention issue in high school, as well as youths who were not formally diagnosed but felt they also struggled. The center received a three-year grant in 2013 for $475,000 from the foundation.

Many of those students who were not formally diagnosed reported difficulties similar to those of students who received special education services, the study found. What appeared to mitigate the problems for all students was a strong sense of connection to the community, self-confidence, and family support.

James Wendorf, the executive director of NCLD, said that just a handful of philanthropies are making investments in this area—often, as with Oak, because there’s a family connection to dyslexia or some other learning disability. Those foundations include the New York-based Poses Family Foundation, the Peter and Elizabeth C. Tower Foundation in Getzville, N.Y., and the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation in New Haven, Conn.

“We know these are issues that cut across demographic categories,” Wendorf said. “There are many other philanthropies and individuals who are touched and who are connected to our cause but who may not yet have formally developed philanthropic strategies and made investments. The good news is there are more funders today than there were 10 years ago. There is an incredible surge in collaboration.”

The Oak Foundation has also funded a variety of projects with Teach For America in the area of learning differences, including work with the organization in North Carolina and assistance in establishing a global fellowship for teacher-coaches. The foundation’s “thought leadership,” as Teach For America leader Rachel Brody described it, has helped Teach For America shape its own program for helping its teachers reach all kinds of learners. Once called the special education and ability initiative, The program is now known as the diverse-learner initiative, said Brody, the effort’s senior managing director.

Focused Contribution

Foundations like Oak may not get the same amount of press as giant organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or the Walton Family Foundation, which have donated billion of dollars in the K-12 field, said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Hess, who also writes a blog for Education Week, has written extensively on K-12 philanthropy.

But the Oak Foundation’s work is more representative of the philanthropic field, he said, adding that such foundations are valuable because they’re more nimble than public entities, and can allow more room for experimentation.

“Philanthropy can be the venture capital of education,” Hess said. “Small foundations can really play a significant role in giving things a chance to succeed.”

The focus on learning differences as a broad umbrella is in contrast to other efforts going on in disability advocacy. For example, Decoding Dyslexia, a parent-led group with chapters in all 50 states, has been working to get dyslexia categorized as a specific disorder recognized both in state and federal legislation.

“When our kids are just thought of as struggling readers, they’re not always given the evidence-based practice that we know that they need,” said Deborah Lynam, one of Decoding Dyslexia’s founding members. Decoding Dyslexia and organizations such as Oak are linked by their goal to support the same types of children, Lynam said. “But I definitely see it as a strategic difference,” Lynam said.

Last year, the Oak Foundation went through a process to refine and refocus its philanthropic efforts. It plans to focus on six areas within the broader umbrella of learning differences, including strengthening teacher capacity, enhancing parent engagement, and supporting efforts to help students become active partners in their own education.

“We’re continuing to work with educators to shift their mindset,” Parker-Fisher said. “And most importantly, we want to bring students into those conversations.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 28, 2015 edition of Education Week as Oak Foundation Aiding Those With ‘Learning Differences’


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